Although Present Concerns’ title makes it sound as though it consists of essays by Lewis written about 1940s issues, the contents still speak to our present day. One of the passages, quoted to me from a friend, leapt out to me as so applicable to a world deep in the abyss of covid-19, that I had to find and buy the collection for myself immediately. I found and relished the essay I was after (“On Living in the Atomic Age”), along with a medley of others — each just as quotable as the next. Some fall into predictable Lewisian themes: there are three on the importance of a traditional liberal education, for instance, as Lewis writes to its importance for both the person who is strengthened by them and the effects of liberal education on preserving democracy, but there are also the novelties, like his thoughts on sex in literature. Lewis often turns an apparently mundane topic into a theme of greater interest; one of the essays is a reflection on bicycles, for interest, wherein Lewis uses his evolving relationship with bicycles (un-enchantment, enchantment, disenchantment, re-enchantment) to explore how humans relate to the world in general, including with one another in close bonds. It’s a fascinating little collection, and well worth finding for Lewis readers.
“I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure.[…] I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”
IS ENGLISH DOOMED?”
“The effect of removing this education has been to isolate the mind in its own age; to give it, in relation to time, that disease which, in relation to space, we call Provincialism. The mere fact that St Paul wrote so long ago is, to a modern man, presumptive evidence against his having uttered important truths. The tactics of the enemy in this matter are simple and can be found in any military text-book. Before attacking a regiment you try, if you can, to cut it off from the regiments on each side.”
IS HISTORY BUNK?
“‘We call a man free whose life is lived for his own sake, not for that of others. In the same way philosophy is of all studies the only free one: because it alone exists for its own sake’”
There will always be people who think that any more astronomy than a ship’s officer needs for navigation is a waste of time. There will always be those who, on discovering that history cannot really be turned to much practical account, will pronounce history to be Bunk. Aristotle would have called this servile or banausic; we, more civilly, may christen it Fordism.
“The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson. It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop. In so doing, the Middle Ages fixed on the one hope of the world. It may or may not be possible to produce by the thousand men who combine the two sides of Launcelot’s character. But if it is not possible, then all talk of any lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine. […] If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be ‘meek in hall’, and those who are ‘meek in hall’ but useless in battle—for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed.
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY
“Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up—painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophising, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction. Lovers look at each other: that is, in opposite directions. To transfer bodily all that belongs to one relationship into the other is blundering.”
“The true aim of literary studies is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him ‘the spectator’, if not of all, yet of much, ‘time and existence’. The student, or even the schoolboy, who has been brought by good (and therefore mutually disagreeing) teachers to meet the past where alone the past still lives, is taken out of the narrowness of his own age and class into a more public world. He is learning the true Phaenomenologie des Geistes; discovering what varieties there are in Man.
“There is in all men a tendency (only corrigible by good training from without and persistent moral effort from within) to resent the existence of what is stronger, subtler, or better than themselves. In uncorrected and brutal men this hardens into an implacable and disinterested hatred for every kind of excellence.”
“Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.”
“If you want a man to refuse the nasty medicine that he really needs, there is no surer way than to ply him daily with medicines no less nasty which he perceives to be useless.”
“In the last few years I have spent a great many hours in third-class railway carriages (or corridors) crowded with servicemen. I have shared, to some extent, the shock. I found that nearly all these men disbelieved without hesitation everything that the newspapers said about German cruelties in Poland. They did not think the matter worth discussion: they said the one word ‘Propaganda’ and passed on. This did not shock me: what shocked me was the complete absence of indignation. They believe that their rulers are doing what I take to be the most wicked of all actions—sowing the seeds of future cruelties by telling lies about cruelties that were never committed. But they feel no indignation: it seems to them the sort of procedure one would expect. This, I think, is disheartening. But the picture as a whole is not disheartening. It demands a drastic revision of our beliefs. We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true. Whether you like this situation or not depends on your views.